As part of the initiative to redefine “College and Career Ready,” I had an opportunity to visit with about thirty-five high school students yesterday and gain their perspectives on a variety of topics. We discussed the difference between “College and Career Ready” and “Life Ready”, academic competition among their peers, class rank, student-teacher relationship, and a myriad of other topics.

First off, let me say that I was impressed by the honesty and vulnerability in which these students spoke to me and my colleagues. I knew that they would be good – but wow!

Learning from Students

Image result for student voice circleThe first group of students that we conversed with were high school students from all grades that had participated in Student Voice Circles in the past. These students were comfortable with the environment and willing to open up to just about any question we threw their way. A few staff members were also involved. Instead if this potentially stifling conversation – it broadened it.

After about 90 minutes of dialog and exploration with this group, my colleagues and I moved down the hallway where we had an opportunity to spend nearly 90 more minutes with the student leaders of the JROTC program. This particular high school has roughly 250 students that participate in the JROTC program and the students sitting in front of us were juniors and seniors that made up the top leadership team. Again, they were ready and eager to explore any topics we introduced. Student Voice at its best!

The reason we visited with these students is because JROTC has such a unique curriculum that focuses on building leadership, problem-solving skills, communication skills, financial literacy, and a variety of other skills and attributes that the general ed students don’t necessarily focus on. These are the same skills and attributes that bubbled up during our recent conversations with business leaders when discussing their hiring criteria. While the students were extremely insightful and provided us with perspectives we hadn’t yet considered, there wasn’t much that surprised me. Except for one point.

As we discussed perseverance, drive, grit, and success in JROTC, one of the students explained that opportunities for growth and higher levels of responsibility within the JROTC ranks are motivating them to work harder and achieve higher. JROTC works in similar fashion to military in terms of ranks. Students start as cadets and have opportunities for promotions and awards. With this growth in stature comes more responsibility which results in higher achievement. It’s a progressive circle and it drives them unlike anything else they do during the school day.

Effort is Driving Achievement

Image result for atholton jrotcSo what about their grades in JROTC? Isn’t that motivation enough? Nope. Turns out they don’t even have grades based on their academic performance within the courses taught in JROTC. Instead, they are graded on effort.

So, how is this different from the courses they take outside of JROTC? According to students, most of their high school courses are performance-driven rather than effort-driven. You don’t always get out what you put in. In fact, variables such as class size, whether they like the content, real-world application, and even if they believe the teacher likes them are impacting their drive – and ultimate success – in these courses. According to the students, effort is not considered. Only results.

This begs the question: what is more important, achievement on an assessment of short-term information retainment, or effort, perseverance, and real-world application? Also, can’t the latter contribute to the former? If so, why is it not embedded into our curriculum?

This is not a criticism of teaching or teachers. They work so hard implementing the standards and curriculum handed to them. Frankly, there are not enough hours in the school day to accomplish everything they would like to with the current expectations handed down from above.

However, I sure hope that as we continue our journey of reimagining College & Career Ready, we find that parts of the JROTC model find their way into the instructional practices of all classroom subjects.

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